Like everyone else right now, I’ve been partially stuck inside practicing social distancing as part of our society’s duty to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. I say “partially” because luckily one can also socially distance while spending time outdoors, and Ithaca is the perfect place. After all, why not use this opportunity to explore the beautiful area surrounding Cornell and hike some new trails? On quite a few trails during my recent hikes in various nature preserves, I’ve noticed square or rectangular indentations in the ground nearby, sometimes lined with stone. Over a hundred years ago, these earthen depressions were the cellars of houses that are now long gone. Besides general purpose use, cellars were used to store vegetables, fruits and other foods in a society before refrigeration or a globalized food system. Without a grocery store selling foods from climates with year-round growing periods, the people who used to live in these forgotten houses may have used their cellars to store foods for when they weren’t in season. This effort that went into keeping and preserving food is tough for me to imagine, especially when the grocery store sells anything I could think of, my apartment’s kitchen has a fridge and freezer and so many of my foods contain enough preservatives to keep indefinitely.
I gained a sense for this effort a month ago when I learned to can. What does it mean to eat something that’s unavailable during winter without coming from hundreds, if not thousands of miles away? Making and canning strawberry and blueberry jams was entirely new to me, but likely second nature to my grandmother who used to make rhubarb jam. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to use fresh and local fruit to make jams in February, so for the purpose of learning the process I used frozen strawberries and blueberries for the first and last time. Only seasonal fruit will be canned in the future. The entire procedure is rather labor intensive, or at the very least, something that requires your full focus. With fruit, there’s little risk in making a deadly mistake that leads to botulism, but sterilization of all materials in boiling water beforehand is still essential. Crushed berries, lemon juice, pectin and sugar are mixed and boiled together in a fairly strict procedure, the product of which is then poured carefully into jars. After each jar is filled until there’s a quarter of an inch of headspace, the lid is applied to the fully-cleaned jar mouth, closed finger tight, and placed into the boiling water of the canner (a setup that can be easily purchased at thrift stores) for ten minutes. The jars then must be removed and left to cool for a day, during which time they are fully sealed and, provided everything was done correctly, will make for a tasty treat in the future.
Throughout my first experience canning, I thought of how common of a household practice it used to be in this country not all too long ago. Canning now serves as a glimpse into a time when the seasonality of food held a giant role in people’s lives, and eating something out of season required effort and forethought. Eating foods in season or otherwise having to preserve them through canning or other means created a connection to food in which the beauty of freshly ripened fruit was understood.
Seeing the ruins of old homesites on my recent hikes reminded me of this past food culture again, when canning alone allowed us to enjoy the flavor of strawberries and blueberries in March in Central NY. I could almost picture those pantries and cellars stocked with canned foods, perhaps running low after the winter, though quickly my mind shifted to our grocery store shelves that have seemed sparser as of late.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was likely inconceivable to many Americans that a time may come when many foods might become scarce for one reason or another. Our globalized and commodified food system dictates that any food we want can appear in front of us, and we can’t imagine that ever changing. This makes food a decontextualized consumer good with which we have no connection. What’s the beauty in having strawberry jam in winter when they sell Smuckers at Walmart year round? The effects of this global pandemic haven’t gotten to the point of extreme food shortages at the store, and I, like everyone else, hope and pray they never will. Still, perhaps the bare shelves expose our detachment to food production that makes a jam in March seem ordinary.
Matthew Becue is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].